We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
-Julius Oppenheimer on the first atomic bomb.
That quote comes to mind while watching Sergio Canavero work. When performing surgery, he becomes so mesmerized by the task that myself and his other assistants become indistinguishable from his steel instruments, born and bred for this sole moment when he has need of us. Even the patient isn’t a human being anymore: just a puzzle to be deciphered or discarded when the last piece finally breaks.
I thought it was the greatest honor in the world when the neurosurgeon accepted my application to join his team. Despite the international controversy over the ethics of head transplants, I knew that I was going to become part of history. I wasn’t embarrassed to tell my family what I was doing either — they were proud of the honor I was doing for China. Our president Xi Jinping is sanctioning this experimental procedure because he is determined to replace the U.S. as the world leader in science, and it was my privilege to perform on that global stage.
Dr. Canavero has explained and rehearsed the procedure with us over the last several months, but this was more rigorous than any of my classes at Peking University. Essentially we will be simultaneously severing the spinal cords of the donor and recipient with a diamond-edged blade. The donor head will be cooled to a state of deep hypothermia to keep the neurological tissue from dying during the transfer. By the end of the 24 hour operation we will have reconnected all vertebral bones, nerve-endings, veins, trachea — everything. The patient will then be suspended in drug-induced coma until he has healed enough to move on his own.
And then? There’s going to be a brand new person with a whole new life to live. Those who are languishing in a paralyzed body will be able to walk. Healthy minds trapped by the ravages of age can be restored to youth, and the very notion of mortality and individuality and the soul itself will be forever changed.
That’s the best case scenario, of course. There is also the chance that the surgery will fail and we’ll have sacrificed two people to the altar of our arrogance. More than that though, failure would likely show our best intentions in a macabre light, prejudicing the world against us and our research for decades to come. So many eyes on us — on China — so many judgments and condemnations…
The pressure was intense. I could feel it in the air the second I stepped into Dr. Canavero’s laboratory each morning. No-one smiled, and if they did, it was just a thin bloodless line that died almost before it began. As we approached the operation date, the other two assistants and I were drilled incessantly on every potential obstacle. One second of hesitation during the operation and we’d be ostracized from all official institutions which sought to distance themselves from our failure. Flash cards, pop tests, rehearsals on dummies, endless study — but we were still months away from the official operation when I received a phone call at 1 AM.
“… you’ll be using the back-door tonight.” Dr. Canavero didn’t even wait for me to say hello. “It will be unlocked. Don’t bring any identification, and tell no-one where you will be. Officially speaking, nothing that you do or see tonight will have ever happened.”
“What’s going on? Is this about —” I managed before being cut-off with an impatient hiss.
“Of course it’s about the operation. Stop wasting time. We have a long night ahead of us.”
The other two assistants were already there when I arrived. I will not use their real names, but instead will call the acclaimed surgeon Dr. Cheung while Dr. Zhao is an elderly woman who leads her research department. Canavero was the center of attention as always though, animated as he was with passionate energy and explosive gesticulations.
“My friends, we are very fortunate, very fortunate indeed,” Dr. Canavero was saying. He ushered me in from the door, glancing both ways outside before securing it behind me.
“President Xi Jinping has given us a gracious gift. One that I had long desired, but hadn’t yet dared to ask. Come come, not that way.”
Dr. Canavero was practically prancing as he turned away from the usual route to our lab. It was almost surreal navigating the abandoned hallways that were typically bustling with life. The naked florescent lights burned with a gentle hum like the eternal pondering of an unseen jury. Cheung answered my questioning look with raised eyebrows of his own as we all turned to follow.
“It’s a risk, you know. What he’s doing for us. Of course it will be to the glory of China if we succeed, but with an experimental procedure on the frontier between reality and science-fiction? He’s gambling with us.”
We were in the elevator now. I’d never been to the bottom floor before (you needed a special key to access it) but I’d always been told it was just storage space. Dr. Canavero’s feverish excitement while he inserted his key told a different story.
“We are already taking every reasonable precaution to prepare —” Dr. Zhao began to reassure him.
“But the thing about powerful men is,” Canavero continued, ignoring her, “is that they don’t remain in power by gambling. Not without a loaded die, at least.”
The elevator door opened on a long hallway with stairs at the end which continued spiraling downward. The first thing that impressed me was the enormity of the space: it must be as large as the rest of the facility combined.
“We can’t rig an operation.” Dr. Cheung snorted. “And even if we could falsify the reports, it won’t convince the scientific community for long. It would do nothing but further discredit your —”
“I’m not talking about rigging the operation,” Dr. Canavero said, leading us toward the stairs. “I fully intend to live-stream the entire procedure for the whole world to see.”
“Then I’m afraid I don’t follow —” Dr. Cheung started before being cut off again. Was that the echo of a shout from further down? In the sudden silence, we all heard it clearly again. Hoarse, strained, utterly hopeless, as though it had been calling on deaf ears for a long, long time. I rushed to the railing with the other two assistants.
“We’re not going to rig the operation.” I was the first to speak. The words were difficult to form in my mouth. “We’re going to rig the preparation. The whole world will think they’re watching something that’s being done for the very first time…”
It was still a storage space, of sorts, but it would be more accurate to call it a jail. The corridor was lined with cages barely large enough for their human occupant to stand. Below this floor ran another identical corridor with its own set of cages, and even more below that as far down as I can see. Thin hands grasped uselessly at the wire, rattling them in restless excitement and fear. Others continued to lay on the ground, too broken or hopeless to even turn our way.
“While we’ve already successfully completed it. Dozens of times.” Dr. Canavero joined us to look down. “No play would ever be performed without a rehearsal, after-all. The moment we accepted the research grants from President Xi Jinping, we have all become actors in his employ.”
“How many are there?” Dr. Zhao breathed a hot whisper.
“Enough to make it a good show,” Dr. Canavero replied.
“Who are they though?” I asked.
“They’re not victims, if that’s what you’re asking,” Dr. Canavero said, turning back to the staircase. “At some point in all of our lives, we have a choice: to become someone, or to become no-one. It is their misfortune that they decided the later, although ultimately it was still their decision to make. I can only hope that my own team,” he stopped here, turning back to level his gaze on us, “that my own team has the foresight to recognize when they are making such a choice, and to do so more wisely.”
The implications were clear. Report the incident and it would be more likely that I ended up in one of those cages than it was for any of them to go free. Science is concerned with the truth, after-all. Not with how we got there. I took the first step toward the stairs, but a hand caught me by the arm.
“Some are likely to survive though, aren’t they?” Dr. Zhao’s face was pleading for something that I couldn’t give her. I tried to force a smile, for her sake.
“Of course. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? We’re just learning how to switch the heads.” I knew it wasn’t true even while saying it. Even the survivors would be buried with this secret, I had no doubt. That’s when it occurred to me that my fate was likely inevitable for the same reason. Why would the government ever risk these methods getting out?
That’s why I’m writing this now though. Just in case something does happen. The first operation is about to begin, but I can’t help but feel I’m the one about to go under the knife. Is it wrong that part of me is excited too? My family will be so proud when this is over. I’ll be a hero, and don’t all heroes walk on the bodies of those they couldn’t save?